JNF UK gives emotional showcase to music composed in concentration camps

3,000 attend Notes of Hope concert in Jerusalem featuring examples of a 'very rich' musical life


Aviva Bar-On vividly recalls the songs poet and musician Ilse Weber sang to her when a nine-year-old incarcerated in Theresienstadt in Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia.

Ms Weber — an inmate and children’s nurse in the camp — used music as a means to take minds off the pain and suffering. As the children struggled to cope with malnutrition, typhoid and diarrhoea, the nurse would make light of their situation with songs about their illnesses.

“She was funny and she made us laugh,” recalled Ms Bar-On, more than 70 years later. “She had a song about putting a cork in your bum to stop the problem.”

Ms Weber died in Auschwitz with her son and no complete record of her compositions survives.

But on Sunday in Jerusalem, one of her songs was performed by Ms Bar-On, 85, at a concert of music written in concentration camps before an audience of 3,000 including Israeli Defence Minister Avigdor Lieberman.

The concert was the culmination of the efforts of Italian composer Francesco Lotoro, who has spent 30 years searching for such material. Held by JNF UK to mark Israel’s 70th anniversary, it featured 11 pieces, many surprisingly lively and upbeat.

For Ms Bar-On, now resident in Israel, it was an opportunity for her to sing, which she has always loved to do, performing When I Was Lying Down in Terezin’s Children’s Clinic without a shred of nervousness.

It was impossible not to feel a chill watching Ms Bar-On’s performance, imagining what the writer would have felt to know that her light-hearted lullabies had been preserved.

“In the camps there was an explosion of creativity,” Mr Lotoro said before the Notes of Hope concert.

Ms Bar-On recalled a “very rich” musical life within Theresienstadt, where she was held for three years. “There were famous opera singers and high-ranking musicians. People were very highly educated. There were lots of performances and a women’s choir. I was the only child and I was very happy to be part of it  and do all the performances I could.”

She remembered Ms Weber as a “wonderful, smiling lady” and felt a sense of responsibility as the “only one in the world who remembers her songs. I am happy that I am her voice today. It makes me feel proud.”

When Mr Lotoro discovered a notebook containing Ms Weber’s lyrics, he was frustrated by the absence of a musical score to accompany them. He worked with Ms Bar-On to bring them back to life.

Another song showcased at the concert was Tango in Auschwitz, composed by 12-year-old Irka Janowski, who died in the camp. Written in Polish and set to an existing tango tune, it speaks of the “beastly guards” and “tyrant’s whip” experienced by those imprisoned.

It was performed by nineteen children from two academies in the Negev which JNF UK helps to support.

Zitra (Tomorrow), a dramatic tune, looks forward to a day when “everyone will be happy at heart” and those in the camp “feel the last sorrow”.

It was composed by Joseph Roubicek for a young Theresienstadt prisoner, Manka Alter, but she never got to perform it. When the opportunity arose to sing it at “Café Theresienstadt”, she was told to choose between her job in the kitchen and performing.

She chose her job, terrified that she would not otherwise be able to sneak out the food which kept her alive.

In a video recorded by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial, and shown at the concert, Ms Alter recalled that “singing was something that made you forget the hunger”.

Mr Lotoro told the JC: “I have searched for music that was written and performed in concentration camps for years. We lost a lot of the music because the Nazis destroyed it.”

The composer, who converted to Judaism in 2004, said “8,000 scores have been recorded but more than 10,000 are still waiting to be discovered.”

One five-act opera had been written on toilet paper. Other pieces were found scribbled in notebooks, or on food wrappers or tickets. “Some of the music was snuck out of the camps by musicians who knew they were going to die,” Mr Lotoro said.

He knows time is running out for the preservation of the music and has travelled the world in the cause, scouring museum archives and interviewing survivors.

“Of course time is against us because people die,” he acknowledged. “It is part of my sufferance. I don’t do anything else, I can do only this.”

Getting the music performed is the final and most important element of his work. “If it is not heard, then the music dies, like the people who wrote it.

“There is so much music in the Imperial War Museum but nobody listens to it. This is one of my biggest frustrations. The music was created to be listened to. Music lives in the air.”

Another artist whose work was featured at the concert was Max Ehrlich, an inmate in transit camp Westerbork and a well-known cabaret musician in pre-war Berlin. He teamed up with fellow musician Willy Rosen to create the Camp Westerbork Theatre Group.

His nephew Alan Ehrlich was among the audience on Sunday, having dedicated his life to researching his uncle’s work and career. “Their music became Westerbork hits, prisoners constantly humming their tunes,” he said.

 “It was preserved in their memoirs.”

The group’s popularity with the camp’s commander for a time kept them off the list of names destined for Auschwitz. “The commander was star-struck to have these stars in his camp. They were playing for their lives, they were acting for their lives,” Mr Ehrlich said.

And when his uncle was finally deported to Auschwitz in 1944, he was forced to perform before being killed.

Mr Ehrlich expressed concern about the number of “conflicting stories about the Holocaust that are out there.

“It’s very important to establish what happened as absolute fact.”

For Mr Lotoro, working with young musicians has been a chance to mentor a new generation. His students played at the concert alongside the Ashdod Symphony Orchestra, singing in Hebrew, Yiddish, German, Czech and Romany.

“For the children it has been educational and difficult,” he said. “For me it is a great honour as a musician, as a man and as a Jew.

“This music now belongs to them.”

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